How STEAM & dramatic play can transform learning experiences for preschool children
Infusing STEAM into the dramatic-play area is an excellent way to get children interested in STEAM. It gives them an opportunity to try out ideas, explore their interests, and get excited about STEAM topics.
In these pictures, you see a child deeply engaged in creating a spaceship (made with inexpensive materials). The children in this class were interested in investigating vehicles so they embarked on making their own. This child wanted to attach nuts, bolts, and light switches to his spaceship to make it “go” because “machines have parts like this.” After much trial and error, he figured out that he could poke a hole with a screwdriver, thread a pipe cleaner through it, and then attach the object to the pipe cleaner. This kind of problem-solving is central to STEAM thinking and learning. Dramatic play like this engages a child’s mind and enhances learning. It’s also incredibly fun!
Often, dramatic play includes prop boxes and plastic items that are used to simulate restaurants, post offices, and doctors’ offices. Usually there are dishes, clothing, and a cash register. The themes in dramatic play don’t typically permeate the rest of the classroom, but there are ways to do so by taking children’s interests and creating an immersive experience.
My first year teaching preschool, I took pictures of my prop boxes to keep a record. Here is one I put together for construction workers.
This box was created without student suggestions, and with many store-bought, plastic materials.
As I observed the children, it occurred to me that the classroom was full of store-bought plastic items in primary colors. I wondered what it would be like to offer them real objects and materials, and asked them what materials they were interested in using.
- What would the classroom look like when students are consulted in choosing materials?
- What would it look like when learning opportunities are based on their interests and experiences?
- How rich and meaningful could the school day be for young children when they are given real objects to explore?
And the prop boxes transformed!
I brought in pictures of myself at Habitat for Humanity builds, and real construction materials including PVC and copper piping. We talked about how walls, plumbing, and roofing were installed. Of course we read books about construction, and displayed them in the reading center afterwards. We included a magnetic stud finder in the prop box. This led to considerable interest in magnets, which led to adding new magnets in the small-toys center. When we talked about safety, we added masks, gloves, and eye-protection glasses. To incorporate math, we discussed measurement and made graphs as we measured common objects.
Sandpaper, blocks and some other materials ended up in the art center as well. In this case, the Arts were easily integrated into the STEAM-based dramatic-play center. The children were increasingly interested in parts of construction, especially because I facilitated their learning by using new vocabulary. When we talked about architects, the children created their own constructed objects and blueprints.
One of the wonderful things about including STEAM in the classroom is that there are unlimited opportunities to incorporate literacy into highly engaging, hands-on activities. In this example alone, children practiced printing, sounding out words, fine motor skills, and making a plan, all in an open-ended, self-selected learning opportunity.
We added linking toys to the block center. The children’s blueprints became carefully constructed contraptions which were beautiful, creative, and sparked more interest in the sciences and engineering!
As you can see, this opened up opportunities to talk about math concepts such as geometry (shapes and symmetry) and number sense (counting and skip-counting).
Being a preschool teacher with student loans, I had to get creative with my acquisition of materials. I went shopping for free in my house and my dad’s garage. To raise parental interest in our ongoing investigations, I composed a letter to parents asking for input, donations, and volunteers to visit, talk, and read to the children. They seemed to be quite pleased to be involved! I also visited my local thrift stores, including the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. It was at this time I also discovered a wonderful place: a teacher-friendly recyclables center in my town called Resource Depot. This place is a gold mine for new and used (and clean) materials for teachers to turn into STEAM materials. When you are creating a STEAMy classroom, think about your resources: your home, the children’s parents (who love to help!) and local thrift and discount stores. With a little imagination and a lot of excitement, you can turn your dramatic-play center into five centers at once!
My challenge to preschool teachers is to take this doctor’s prop box and make it STEAMy by incorporating REAL materials.
- How could you develop a better theme box?
- How could the physicians theme permeate your other centers?
- How could you create an immersive experience, building on the children’s interests and input?
Over the past 20 years, I've had the great joy of working with nearly every age group from 3 year-olds through adults. Exploring Science can be exceptionally fun for everyone, and nature is by far my favorite teaching tool. Animals and plants inspire wonder and invite true experiential learning. Creepy and cuddly, I believe in the inclusion of insects and animals in the classroom is essential for developing respect for and understanding of the natural world.
One of my fondest teaching memories was watching the excitement of four year-olds as they observed a praying mantis pod break open to release dozens of tiny mantises. My hobbies include nature walks, spending time in botanical gardens, and visiting zoos, aquariums, and science museums.
They created a gorgeous museum in the classroom, and invited families to come peruse the gallery and actually purchase the work of their incredible artist. They also looked through the many photographs they had taken of the children over this time, had them printed in large poster form and included them in the gallery.
Families came out in droves to see their children’s work displayed with such respect and appreciation. They purchased the pieces that spoke to them most, and the classroom raised about $200 for materials for future art experiences.
What a brilliant idea, beautifully executed!
The teachers worked hard to write the artists’ biographies and explanations of the works the children had created. The teachers also explained to the families the incredible value of early childhood education, children’s creativity, and art.
Portraits of the artists as young children. Berets. They have berets. We love that detail! Oh and snacks. Who doesn’t love snacks?
The most important aspect of this gallery was that children saw their hard work and learning deeply appreciated by their teachers and displayed for their families. They felt valued, valuable, respected, important, and special. Perhaps that seems like a trivial thing, but it most certainly is not. Children are developing their sense of self and their attitudes toward school and work at this age. This gallery experience told them (quite comprehensively) that they are worthy, that their work is important, that work and learning are valuable, and that their families and teachers appreciate them as people, as artists, as creators, and as learners. That’s one mighty big foundational building block for self-esteem and a sense of self as a learner and creator. It’s also a significant step toward ensuring that the child views school as a positive place and learning as a wonderful thing. Of all the things the children will take away from their preschool experience, this belief in their abilities and a positive perception of school and learning are perhaps the most important.
We also love the actual work the children created in this STEAMy classroom! The children were free to express themselves and their thinking while strengthening their understanding of space and shape, and developing other important STEAM foundational concepts. Take a look, these are some wonderful examples of children’s thinking and learning through art!
When I reflect on STEAM and the components, I have to say that the classroom has become more interesting and the children are more involved. STEAM has engaged children early in open-ended activities that give them the opportunity to learn about themselves and the world around them.
The children enjoy the hands-on exercises, the experiments that push their thought processes, and the activities that create a sense of excitement. STEAM has turned the traditional classroom into a new world of exploration and possibilities.
In this ever-changing world, I believe STEAM opens young minds and stimulates curiosity while instilling higher thinking skills and a love of science, technology, engineering, art, and math. It’s amazing and rewarding to see the children’s reactions when they are told that they are using scientific and engineering skills when they place their thoughts on paper and turn them into 3-D creations.
- Jessica Feliciano, Opportunity Early Education and Family Center, West Palm Beach, FL